The 1967 drama that drew memorable performances from Jim Dale and Stockard Channing in its first Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway in 1985 is as searing as ever as a portrait of two parents whose marriage is unraveling under the strain of caring for their profoundly spastic daughter (Madeleine Martin) whom they have lovingly nickname Joe Egg and treat as though she were normal.
Izzard and Hamilton are just as good as Dale and Channing when it comes to breaking an audience's heart. Anyone who has never seen Nichols' play will find the current production at the American Airline Theater a unique theatrical experience engaging a range of emotional responses rarely attempted by writers of black comedy. It is based on the eminent British playwright's own experience in bringing up a severely disabled daughter.
Izzard, a compact man with a thatch of blond hair, is known in Britain as "the bloke in a dress" but there is no cross-dressing in "Joe Egg." He plays the role of a mama's boy called Bri who never quite grows up but becomes a schoolteacher and husband who covers up a sense of guilt about Joe Egg with jokes, wisecracks, and vaudeville-style routines about visiting dozens of pediatricians.
These routines are played out with his wife, Sheila, radiantly portrayed by Hamilton.
While joining her desperate husband's attempts to cope with tragedy through humor, Sheila remains undefeated and nourishes the impossible hope that 10-year-old Joe Egg, a "vegetable" who cannot speak and is subject to epileptic fits, will improve as she grows older.
Bri and Sheila are agreed on caring for the child at home rather than putting her in an institution, as doctors and friends repeatedly suggest. Among these friends are Freddie (Michael Gaston) and Pam (Margaret Colin), a supercilious couple completely out of tune with Bri and Sheila's charade of living as though there is nothing amiss in their relationship to each other or unusual about their child.
The only other character in the play is Grace (Dana Ivey), Bri's domineering mother who blames Sheila's loose living before marriage for Joe Egg's condition.
Nichols has written the play around Bri, and it is his emotional undoing that rivets the audience and makes his decision to run away from Sheila and Joe Egg, taking only a single suitcase with him, completely sympathetic rather than the act of a cowardly, immature man. Bri's habit of stepping down to the footlights and addressing the audience directly has much to do with building this empathetic response, an opportunity not given Sheila.
Under Laurence Boswell's expert direction, Izzard the stand-up comedian has been able to repeat the success he had as a dramatic actor when he played Lenny Bruce in Julian Barry's play, "Lenny," in London several seasons ago. At 41 he seems ready for a new chapter in his career as a performer judging by his amazingly insightful characterization of Bri, which is equal to and in some ways better than those given by Albert Finney in the original Broadway production, Alan Bates in the 1971 film version, and Jim Dale.
After his limited run in "Joe Egg," ending May 25, Izzard will begin rehearsals for a new comedy tour starting on the West Coast in August and coming to New York in November. He recently completed a film, "Muraya," in which he plays a zany German that has not yet been released.
"Joe Egg" set designer Es Devlin's middle-class drawing room, a bit on the tacky side, is perfectly executed and lovingly lit by lighting designer Adam Silverman. Devlin's costumes are more contemporary than 1960s, but a little updating can't hurt this drama for all eras that undoubtedly have many future revivals.
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